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A typically jargon-filled but nevertheless insightful post by Venkatesh Rao. This one discusses the ‘war’ on the URL, something that Rao quite rightly points out is a “vulnerability of the commons to outsiders problem” rather than a “tragedy of the commons” problem.

Literacy around URLs is extremely low, especially given the amount of tracking spam appended on the end these days. Although browser extensions and some browsers themselves can strip this, it’s actually worth knowing what has been added. By distrusting all URLs, and forcing people into an app-per-platform experience, we degrade the web, increase surveillance, and make it ever-harder to create the software commons.

The disingenuous philosophy in support of this war is the idea that URLs are somehow dangerous and ugly glimpses of a naked, bare-metal protocol that innocent users must be paternalistically protected from by benevolent and beautiful products. The truth is, when you hide or compromise the naked hyperlink, you expropriate power and agency from a thriving commons. Sure, aging grandpas may have some trouble with the concept but that’s true of everything, including the friendliest geriatric experiences (GXes). My grandfather handled phone numbers and zip codes fine. URLs aren’t much more demanding and vastly more empowering to be able to manipulate directly as a user. Similarly, accessibility considerations are a disingenuous excuse for a war on hyperlinks.

A useful way to think about this is the interaction of the Hypertext Experience (HX) with Josh Stark’s notion of a Trust Experience (TX), which needs to be extended beyond the high-financial-stakes blockchain context he focuses on, to low-stakes everyday browsing. We all agree that the TX of the web has broken and it’s now a Dark Forest. The median random link click now takes you to danger, not serendipitous discovery. This is not entirely the fault of platform corps. We all contributed. And there really is a world of scammers, trolls, phishers, spammers, spies, stalkers, and thieves out there. I’m not proposing to civilize the Dark Forest so we don’t need to protect ourselves from it. I merely don’t want the protection solution to be worse than the problem. Or worse, end up in a “you now have two problems” situation where the HX is degraded with no security benefits, or even degraded security.


There is also the retreat from pURLs (pretty URLs) to ugly URLs (uURLs) with enormous strings of gobbledygook attached to readable domain-name-stemmed base URLs, mostly meant for tracking, not HX enhancement (in fact uURLs are a dark HX pattern/feature if you’re Google or Twitter). Even when you can figure out how to copy and paste links (in 10 easy steps!), you’re forced to edit them for both aesthetics and character-length reasons. And this is of course even harder on mobile, which suits app-enclosure patterns just fine. In this arms race for control of the HX, we users have resorted to cutting and pasting text itself, creating patterns of useless redundancy, transcription errors, and canonicity loss (when transclusion is now a technically tractable canonicity-preserving alternative). Or worse, screenshots (and idiotic screenshot essays that need OCR or AI help to interact with) that horribly degrade accessibility and create the added overhead of creating alt text (which will no doubt add even more AI for a problem that shouldn’t exist to begin with).

There is a general pattern here: Just like comparable privately owned products and services, public commons and protocols of course have their flaws and limitations, and need innovation and stewardship to improve and evolve. But if you’re fundamentally hostile to the very existence of commons goods and services, the slightest flaw becomes an attack surface and justification to destroy the whole thing. It’s not a tragedy of the commons problem created by participants in it; it’s a vulnerability of the commons to outsiders problem. A technical warfare problem rather than a socio-political problem.

Source: Ribbonfarm

Image: DALL-E 3